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Timor Leste: Xanana Gusmao govt depletes Petroleum Fund, arrests protesting students (+ video)

By Tomas Freitas

Dili, July 8, 2008 -- On Monday July 7 at 9am, approximately 100 students held a protest on their campus, the East Timor National University, against the members of the national parliament. The students are not happy about the MPs who are about to buy a imported luxury car each for themselves. The students protested peacefully by holding banners, yet 21 students were detained by the Timorese National Police.

Timorese law states that there may be no demonstrations within 100 metres of government buildings. However the students were protesting on their own campus. The location of the campus is indeed less than 100 metres from the National Parliament; however this is the students' campus, an important place for expression of free speech and demonstrations.

It is not clear who issued the order to arrest the students but it is widely believed that the order came from Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao himself.

On May 23, 2008, the Council of Ministers approved the final draft of the Mid Year Budget 2008. The total proposed amount is US$773.3 million, to be spent as follows: $59.4 million for 12,600 civil servants' salaries, including police and defence forces; $240 million for the food crisis and $207.4 million for goods and services; $1.4 million will buy luxury cars for each member of the National Parliament; $114.7 million for infrastructure development and $112.2 million for pensions and other social security.

The Gusmao government has cut domestic income tax to almost 10% flat rate and spent almost 30% of the Petroleum Fund to cover its budget deficit. The Petroleum Fund was established by the previous Fretilin government. But now the fund is under threat. In order to be sustainable, only $396 million should be taken out of the fund this year, however the Gusmao government has taken an extra $290.7 million to balance the prices of construction material and to assist in the food crisis, through tasking his friend, the vice-secretary general of the CNRT, to purchase rice in Asian countries without tender.

The continuing inability of the government to carry out the previous budget did not stop Gusmao increasing budget allocations. Only $31.9 million from $347.5 million of budget allocations has actually been executed for this first trimester. The previous execution of the Gusmao government's transitional budget was not certified by the Delloitte Company, which usually certifies the execution report from the Timorese government.

The issues of the purchase of luxury cars and the Petroleum Fund are now big issues in the country. Civil society, media and the Timorese people have criticised this budget, but the academics are silent because their money comes from the government. In turn, the minister of education Joao Cancio has criticised the students, and asked them not to use the campus as a place for demonstrations. Ironically this minister was previously the Head of the Dili Institute Technology, one of the country's universities.

The student demonstrations are continuing. The police continue to protect the parliament zone and have arrested more than 17 students in this morning. The crackdown on the students is ironic, considering the pivotal role that students played in East Timor's struggle for independence, a role that PM Gusmao himself has previously acknowledged.

[Tomas Freitas is director of Luta Hamutuk, a progressive Timorese NGO.]

Timor Leste: Video of police attack on student protest

Students of East Timor National University chanted slogans outside a campus building, which faces the parliament, against a plan by lawmakers to buy themselves new cars with state funds.

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